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There must be a better way to melt that ice slick on your walkway. Here are some ideas.

  • Author: Jeff Lowenfels
    | Alaska gardening
  • Updated: November 12, 2020
  • Published November 12, 2020

Renardo Felipe Fox negotiates a very icy sidewalk next to Tudor Road, Nov. 21, 2018. (Anne Raup / ADN archive)

Let’s face it. Alaskans can live with snow, no problem at all. In fact, we love the stuff, even though it ends outdoor gardening. It is the ice we don’t like, and we spend tremendous amounts of time and effort (usually) to deal with it.

Where is this going? Well, ice-melting products employed by the professionals on roads and sidewalks most often include chloride-based salts or urea (urea, NaCl, MgCl, CaCl). These are also readily available for your driveway and walks in all manner of formulations and labels. They are used because they have the ability to melt ice even when temperatures are well below the freezing point. Unfortunately, they are corrosive and not great for the environment. They can damage lawns, trees and shrubs as well as soils.

For example, the nitrogen concentration in urea-based ice melt products can be 10 times or so what you would put on your lawn, assuming you still believed in feeding yours high amounts of nitrogen! This stuff is also not good for the bodies of water and fish and wildlife.

Now, if you live on a hill and your life is in danger and you must have something that melts in subzero weather, the urea and magnesium chloride products are at least environmentally better than calcium chloride-based ones. Use them sparingly and according to directions and only when needed. In fact, see how little you can use and still get results.

However, if you can avoid these, it makes sense to look for environmentally better alternatives you can live with. There are a few garden-friendlier suggestions worth trying. Some seem pretty unusual, though, so we might need to test them ourselves.

For example, who knew coffee grounds could serve as a good potential ice melter? (Not me.) Oh sure, they must provide some traction, but apparently their natural acidity and dark color actually speeds up snow melt. I can’t wait for our local coffee baristas to start selling bags of their used grinds. Let’s see if it works as well as the internet suggests.

Next, alfalfa meal ice melt. Rabbit food? Yup, apparently so. In fact, alfalfa meal is an actual ingredient in some commercial, home, organic, ice melt formulations. Alfalfa contains lots of nitrogen, so it melts snow like urea, only the nitrogen is in a safe, lower concentration. I am going to try the same stuff we use in the yard … from soil food web to ice melt.

Next, sugar beet juice also lowers the temperature of ice. You can buy powders to make the juice, I suppose, and I suspect they can also be tossed onto ice even without mixing with water. It is certainly worth a try. And if you don’t believe sugar beet juice works, Calgary and other Canadian cities apparently mix it with a salt brine and use it on their streets as a much safer alternative to calcium chloride.

As an aside, it is the sugars in the juice that do the trick. The wastes from brewing beer can also apparently serve as an ice melting agent. Here again is something I suspect many did not realize, so I hope someone gives this a try and lets me know if it works. We have so many local breweries to produce it.

Of course, rubbing alcohol really lowers the melting point of water (down to minus 128 degrees), which is why it’s the basis of car windshield ice melt sprays. You can make homemade rubbing alcohol ice melt solutions for walks and driveways. Start with a gallon of hot water and half a cup or so of rubbing alcohol. Some recipes add a few drops of dishwashing soap. You can spray with a bottle or put some into a bigger, garden-type sprayer for larger applications.

Of course, even before automobiles, sand was a major ice problem-solver. It provides the ultimate in traction and can absorb sunlight, which heats it so it will melt ice. The darker the better for absorbing sunlight-produced heat. Just remember, sand has to be kept dry so it can be applied. It is great stuff for improving soil structure so it really passes my safe-for-yardening test.

Jeff’s Alaska garden calendar

Alaska Botanical Garden: The garden is supposed to reopen tomorrow, but check alaskabg.org for updates. In the meantime there are online workshops and more.

Watering: Folks, this is when plants die from lack of watering. Pay attention. The heat is on.

Birds: OK, start filling your feeders one at a time, waiting to ensure yourself that there are no bears around. Keep any rewards small.

Lights: Are you feeling it yet? Get some because even if you are not, your plants are!

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